Set the table: As roster focus shifts, don’t forget these Bears

By Robert Zeglinski
Contributor

The focus for the Bears’ this off-season has been fixing their problems in two places: Running back and kicker. After investing two draft picks in the backfield and signing another high-priced free agent, the mission is now squarely centered on making sure the wounds of kicking’s past aren’t opened again. Like a repeating alarm someone sets for themselves in the morning―one they unfortunately can’t afford to ignore―the Bears have understandably had their heads elsewhere for months. For storytelling purposes, it’s easy to forget the lesser-heralded, still-developing players in these circumstances. It’s easy to forget the players written out of the script that need their character arcs to be resolved.

When you have as complete a roster as the Bears do, they seem infallible outside of the few holes that might as well have blaring road hazards emblazoned upon them. Supporting pieces get lost in this shuffle. When they come back into the fray and flourish, they feel like a deus ex machina because of how unexpected their rise was while forgotten. If they fail and bust out, no one was the wiser.

In an off-season shaping up to be more of a set-the-table episode for the next major set piece on someone’s favorite fantasy show featuring dragons and magic, it’s important to remember Bears names who have become afterthoughts. Players who have been forgotten mainly because they haven’t been written into the script of this ongoing drama lately. As the “Where’s Waldo?” of Bears kickers takes understandable precedence for the time being, it’s crucial to be reminded of these players’ individual storylines lurking in the background.

Their arcs are evolving and worth monitoring. Their potential place in the scripted pursuit of the franchise’s first championship in over three decades should be reiterated.

Anthony Miller, WR: 24-years-old, second season

A full-time and affectionate proponent of the “Memphis Grind,” Miller’s rookie NFL season was the epitome of a boom-or-bust campaign. It was the perfect display of why the Bears elected to trade up for him in the 2018 NFL Draft, and why a reputation of freelancing needs to change for him to live up to his billing.

Over his first 10 professional games, Miller had 29 receptions on 48 targets for 398 yards and five touchdowns. Those are respectable numbers for a first-year playmaker learning the ropes in an offense where he isn’t the focal point. If you’re part of the Bears coaching staff, you could be reasonably proud of these developments. In his last five games, Miller had a total of four receptions on six targets for 25 yards and one score. Those are the numbers of a player struggling to adapt to the wall of the NFL the more a season wears on. If you’re part of the Bears coaching staff, you’re spending long nights scrambling around the office wondering what made Miller fade away.

What happened to Miller down the stretch―outside of lingering shoulder injuries that plagued him throughout 2018―was his lack of refinement within the Bears’ offense, mostly due to inexperience. While one of the more polished players out of his draft class, there were concerns over Miller’s propensity for freewheeling play in college and how it would translate to the NFL. Those concerns proved to be valid. Miller is incredibly naturally gifted. Most second-round picks are. It’s how they build on their gifts that determines whether they become a star or stay an understudy.

The Bears’ offense expects a sizable jump in production in 2019. It isn’t a stretch to say their reasonable expectation is to be one of football’s elite attacks. If they’re going to make such a leap, they need Miller’s disappearing act to disappear. The cliches of refining his craft, getting in the “best shape of his life,” and building a “better chemistry with Quarterback A” all come to mind. If those stories aren’t being written, then there’s something going on behind the scenes.

Miller has the eminent ability to be a No. 1 receiver. In due time, perhaps as early next season, he might step into this role for the Bears when they least expect it. The receiver they drafted to be one of the lead members of their cast has to embrace the spotlight more than he already has. A new plot is coming.

Adam Shaheen, TE: 24-years-old, third season

One of Mitchell Trubisky’s best friends as a rookie, and known Chipotle connoisseur (if there is such a thing?), Shaheen’s career story has been disappointing thus far.

The former second-round pick in 2017 was irresponsibly coined “Baby Gronk” purely because he was as big as future Patriots Hall of Famer Rob Gronkowski. Through two years, Shaheen’s size in juxtaposition to Gronkowski should be where the comparisons forever end.

Selected to own the middle of the field for the Bears offense, the only place Shaheen has owned in the NFL is a perennial spot on hold in Chicago’s training room. Due to a variety of shoulder and ankle injuries, along with a concussion suffered late last year, Shaheen has started 11 of a possible 32 professional games, and appeared in just 19. This issue is further exacerbated by the fact Shaheen was already a raw Division II prospect before he entered the NFL. The only way he was going to morph into a monster of a tight end weapon was by actually consistently playing in games―something he’s failed to do.

Whenever Shaheen has been available for the Bears to use, both in the archaic run-run-pass offense of John Fox and the Willy Wonka scheme of Matt Nagy, he’s been nothing more than a glorified red zone target. A trojan horse only capable of winning occasional jump balls in the end zone (all four of his career touchdowns have been two yards or less). He isn’t yet developed enough at the point of attack in the running game, or as a downfield target.

To be fair to Shaheen, if you contrast his early-career injuries to Gronkowski’s mid-career injuries, then a legitimate parallel can be drawn between the two. “Baby Gronk” does have more in common with one of the greatest-ever tight ends, and it’s not just size, but health. What unhealthy food for thought.

The optimistic outlook for Shaheen says he finally stays relatively healthy in 2019 and becomes a reliable red zone weapon for the Bears offense. The Bears’ “U” tight end in Trey Burton needs a better complement and Shaheen is up to the task. The pessimistic, or realistic outlook for Shaheen says he continues to struggle with occasional ailments, limiting his time on the field. Ailments that lead to the Bears drafting his replacement next April.

The Bears selected Shaheen to be a matchup nightmare, a headache for opposing defenses, and a plot device in their favor. To this juncture, he’s only been a headache for his team and a detriment to their story.

Robert is an editor, writer, and producer. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.

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